There is a term that I’ve been using for a long time, and last week at The Nation in an article There Are No More Honest Conservatives, So Stop Looking For One, Rick Perlstein used it, “No more affirmative action for conservatives.” Actually, I’ve stopped using the term, because “affirmative action” applies to giving explicit opportunities to members of certain groups because of the excess implicit opportunities that members of others get. This is not the situation with conservatives in the media.
Of course, it is exactly the arguments that conservatives have made over the last five decades when they’ve labeled all media that is not explicitly conservative as “liberal.” They claimed that the reason there were so few conservatives in mainstream media was because of bias. What they avoided (or perhaps didn’t realize because of their own ideological bias) was that there were very few liberals in the mainstream media. Those outlets preferred flavorless reporters and commentators who had very middle of the road beliefs.
But before the rise of the internet, in reaction to this conservative “working of the refs,” we saw lots of conservatives get jobs in the mainstream news industry that were not matched by liberal hires. And that led to outrages like the PBS Newshour pairing the moderate, ever so slightly left of center, Mark Shields, with the 25 year younger, conservative ideologue David Brooks. Balance!
But Perlstein’s article is worth reading in full. The truth is that even the smartest and most conscientious conservatives show their true colors when it is to their ideological advantage. Perlstein specifically mentioned Sean Trende. Now you may know his work, because it is usually very good. He is an excellent numbers guy and he is very much worth reading. But coming right off doing really good work, Perlstein noted:
Perlstein ended by saying, “Time to stop the soft bigotry of low expectations toward the right.” But sadly, that is not going to happen any time soon. There are a couple of reasons. One is simply that the mainstream media are determined create balance among the parties. If Republicans were in favor of killing poor children (which they pretty much are) and Democrats were not, ABC News would have a panel with one pro-child killer on the right, one anti-child killer on the left, and a moderate in the middle calling for a compromise of maybe just killing the ugly poor children.
Another, and I would say even more difficult problem, is that the Overton Window of our political discourage has been skewed. Now it is shocking to hear someone on a mainstream outlet talk explicitly and positively about redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom. But neo-fascist discussion of “helping the job creators” or libertarian discussion of abandoning the poor are common and considered just fine. Since true liberals, much less socialists, have been left out of the conversation for so long, they shock the senses of viewers, even when the viewers themselves are more in agreement with their ideas.
There is one other issue, but I don’t know how important it is. Now that the right has its own sealed off media system, they can push stories that no one outside is even paying attention to. This just doesn’t happen on the left. The mainstream media outlets want to keep conduits to the world in case they stumble upon a real story. But this does seem like a minor issue. After all, George Will may now be on Fox News (where he should have been all along), but for decades he was both on ABC and at the Washington Post.
We will see a good example of the problem in the upcoming Benghazi! hearings. Regardless of the coverage, which I am hopeful will be largely dismissive, there will be plenty of airtime dedicated to conservative hacks screaming about, “Four dead Americans!” Even though the scandal, such as it is, has nothing to do with that. It will be more conservative operatives masquerading as journalists throwing anything possible out, hoping that something sticks. Meanwhile, real news will go un-covered and editors will continue to look for the “honest” conservative.